What Is Power Distance?

Power distance is about how employees relate to their boss. Think of it this way: How much distance do you feel between yourself and your employees? Low power distance cultures typically empower their employees to be critical and to make decisions on their own; but, this independent relationship is just the opposite of what many Eastern business cultures expect.

Power distance is about how employees relate to their boss. Think of it this way, how much distance do you feel between yourself and your employees?

John was a CEO of a company here in California that had outsourced product development to India. The problem was the Indian team kept taking all of John’s brainstorming and ideas as if they were directives. But, the Indian team didn’t want to criticize John. So, a the same time, John is feeling, “Where is all the criticism and critique of my ideas that I’m expecting? Why isn’t my team asking real questions about what we’re doing?”

Many western cultures have very low power distance. Employees are empowered to be critical and to make decisions on their own. They are independent, and western companies value that and delegate a great deal to their employees.

High power distance cultures, on the other hand, operate very differently. In a high power distance culture, the boss is respected for this wisdom and his position in the company. Employees don’t criticize their boss, it’s just not done. And decisions are made at the top of the company and they trickle down to the employees. Feedback is only given when very directly and clearly elicited.

So, power distance is the degree to which culture and society has separated the superior and the subordinate in a company. Asia and the Middle East have many very high power distance cultures, and South America as well as Europe have quite a few cultures that are also higher power distance than many Westernized cultures.

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